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Car reviews - Hyundai - Santa Fe - Elite

Our Opinion

We like
Packaging, rear-access mechanisms, dynamics, diesel parsimony, refinement, safety, ease, affordability, dash design and layout, seats, utility, warranty
Room for improvement
Fussy design, some cheap dash materials, inconsistent attention to detail

Welcome one of the year’s most improved seven-seater SUVs, the Hyundai Santa Fe

17 Sep 2018



SINCE the second-gen Mazda CX-9 redefined the large SUV just over two years ago, it left most rivals scrambling, and some, like the previous Hyundai Santa Fe, floundering in comparison.

Now the mostly all-new fourth-gen TM-series is here, rising to the challenge with upgrades across the vehicle.

Whether it’s enough to unseat the leading Japanese contender remains to be seen, however.

Here we take a long hard look at the mid-range Elite AWD turbo-diesel.


Price and equipment


We wouldn’t be too surprised if a picture of a Hyundai Santa Fe appeared next to the world ‘slogger’ in the dictionary.


For nearly two decades and over three generations, the seven-seater SUV has proved to be solid, stolid, affordable and resolutely unexciting family transportation.

Early iterations such as the 2000 SM were also crude, rough and depressingly downmarket, perhaps reflecting a cheap ‘n cheerful American-market focus.


To be fair, the previous DM-series version launched in 2012 did finally usher in quite a bit of styling flair, as well as decent handling to go with a very pleasant dashboard, but it fell short overall of both the ageing Ford Territory and – later – the Hyundai’s unexpectedly complete Kia Sorento cousin released two years later, as well as the benchmark current Mazda CX-9.


However, even a cursory glance at the nearly all-new fourth-generation TM-series Santa Fe reveals something altogether different and better – if not exactly prettier due to a propensity for fussiness – with a palpable shift upmarket that’s reflected in the pricing and specification.


Whether that translates into stronger sales we’ll have to see, because Hyundai seems to have fudged the latter a little with the demise of the popular V6 petrol, for a naturally-aspirated (and carryover) four-cylinder powertrain. There’s also a continuing turbo-diesel, both mated to an automatic gearbox and four-wheel-drive.

For some reason the head office has deemed the 2.0-litre turbo front-drive petrol versions offered elsewhere unsuitable for Australia.


Mazda and company must surely be sighing in relief.


For now, only the base Active AWD trim comes with the 138kW/241Nm 2.4-litre GDi direct-injection petrol unit, meaning that the Elite AWD tested here from $54,000 before on-road costs comes with a 2.2-litre CRDi four-pot turbo-diesel.


A $2010 increase over the preceding Elite equivalent, it features a number of claimed segment-first driver-assist tech, including active-intervention ‘collision avoidance assist’ functionality on the blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert systems, a ‘safety exit assist’ device that prevents doors being opened when a vehicle is approaching and a ‘rear occupant alert’ that warns the driver if anybody else is hiding in the SUV. Clever.


These come on top of the usual autonomous emergency braking (with pedestrian and cyclist detection), adaptive cruise control with stop/go functionality, driver attention alert, auto high beams and lane-keep assist.


The usual safety gear like electronic stability and traction control, four-wheel discs, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist, hill-start assist, downhill brake control, a tyre-pressure monitoring system are to found, as well as front parking sensors, reverse camera and six airbags. Note, however, that the curtain airbags don’t cover the third-row windows.


Additionally, the Elite brings an 8.0-inch touchscreen multimedia system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility and voice recognition, auxiliary and USB inputs, Bluetooth telephony and audio streaming, satellite navigation with live traffic updates, a 10-speaker Infinity audio system upgrade, DAB+ digital radio, foglights, paddle shifters, alarm, dual-zone climate control with air-con controls in the third row, rain-sensing wipers, keyless entry/go, electrically adjustable front seats, leather upholstery, glovebox cooling, rear-door sunshades, electric tailgate, 18-inch alloys (with a full-sized spare), and ritzier trimmings.


Braked towing capacity is 2000kg while kerb weight in the diesels vary from 1870kg to 1995kg. These broadly correspond with the previous model.




No Santa Fe has been longer, wider or taller than the latest one, stretching by 70mm in length, 10mm in width and 15mm in height. The 2765mm wheelbase, too, has increased, to the tune of a handy 65mm.


Note that at 4770mm long it is substantially shorter than the CX-9.


Legs and feet benefit most, as shoulder space actually remains static or is ever-so-slightly tighter than before, but make no mistake… this is a spacious machine.


We’re talking about a seven-seater SUV, so let’s begin in the third row. Compared to the previous Santa Fe, it’s a huge step forward.


Starting with access, it’s made a whole lot easier thanks to large rear doors and a push-button device that automatically folds and slides the curb-side pew of the middle bench forward for easier third-row entry and exit.

We say easier because the wheelarch does eat into foot-swing space, so there’s still a fair bit of clambering acrobatics required if you’re a full-sized adult.


But that’s the point – a full-sized adult can fit back there. The cushion is very low and the non-reclinable backrest upright, but there’s just enough space for a 178cm person to travel short distances without too much discomfort.


Of course, row number three is designed for smaller people, and here there’s much to admire, from the thoughtful and simple access to the many amenities included, such as dual headrests, outboard armrests, an eight-speed fan control for the side vents, twin cupholders, device storage slot, overhead light, 12-volt outlet and twin push-button second-row backrest releases that also work perfectly when the Santa Fe is in five-seater mode.


Now, the cushion is thin and probably too much so for heavier people, but for kids it’s sufficiently supportive back there. There’s more glass area for seeing out, and the classy light grey roof lining does make it seem less of a dark cave than in the preceding version.


Moving to the roomy and inviting second row, the more-generously padded seats recline and slide quite a significant amount, meaning that there’s ample space for even long legs and big feet, as well as tall hairdos.

Hyundai’s also put a lot of effort here too, as revealed by massive centre face-level vents, perfectly-positioned armrests, deep glass with windows that wind all the way down, blinds to reduce sun glare, dual USB outlets and heaps of storage.


However, this is only half the story, as the Santa Fe’s creators put in pleasing work in making the ambience and atmosphere in this Elite version inviting. Take in the pleated and stitched leather trim, bubble-shape speaker grilles in the doors and aforementioned grey-flecked pillar and headlining.

No longer does the Hyundai look or feel cheap. Far from it in fact. Kids of all ages should enjoy the comfortable, quiet ride back there.


Much the same sums up the front-seat environment too, offering the company’s most successful dashboard design and layout this side of a Genesis. Like a supersized i30, the dash is a low, symmetrical affair that’s big on functionality and ergonomic finesse, yet handsomely executed to boot.


Comfortable, bolstered front seats (with driver’s side access to the passenger-side seat adjustment via a set of buttons – genius!) offering lots of adjustability help drivers of any height and size find the right driving position.

The superbly clear instrument dials with digital trip-computer info are as complete as you need and there’s also copious storage, plenty of ventilation and a reassuring amount of all-round vision thanks to a huge camera, sensors all around and deep glass areas. The build quality is also spot-on.


About the only gripes we have is the unrelenting hardy sheeny plastic trim that serves to put a downmarket spin on things. It’s all a bit coarse and cheap-looking.

Plus, the lack of visual coherency with the various dash graphics is grating: the fonts vary and clash while the colours don’t quite match up between instrumentation, touchscreen and lower console climate controls.

This is no big deal for most families that are likely to buy a Santa Fe, but given the amount of effort Hyundai has put in matching other areas of the interior, it’s a bit of an oversight, and a common fault from this company’s vehicles.


Finally, with all seven seats erect, the Santa Fe’s cargo area is small though still useful, aided by further under-floor storage including the retractable luggage cover.

Dropping the split-fold backrests is a matter of pulling a cord, while pressing buttons on the right-hand side also sees the second-row backrests remotely fall in one easy move.

Official capacity varies from 547 litres to a maximum 1625L. Previously it was 516/1615L.


A full-size spare is slung beneath the rear of the vehicle.


Overall then, other than the aesthetic foibles, the good news is that the latest Santa Fe does exactly what you expect it to do inside. And it isn’t too bad on the road as well.


Engine and transmission


Hyundai (and Kia) has been at the pointy end of diesel development over the last decade, but with nearly two tonnes of SUV to haul around before any bodies are on board, is the revised – but still carryover – 147kW/440Nm 2.2-litre R-series CRDi turbo-diesel enough?


The good news is the inclusion of a box-fresh, in-house-sourced eight-speed torque-converter auto, which helps the official consumption average drop 0.3 litres per 100km to 7.5L/100km.


Essentially a front-drive until extra traction is required, the ‘HTRAC’ on-demand AWD system offers variable torque control managed via three drive modes – Sport (sending up to 50 per cent of drive to the rear wheels), Comfort (up to 35 per cent) and Eco (virtually nothing).

Most owners are likely to simply select a fourth, ‘Smart’ mode that automatically adapts to the driving style and prevailing conditions.


Once the Santa Fe is on the move, it impresses with strong acceleration, quiet operation and muscular response … when the needle is in the 1000rpm torque sweet spot, which is between 1750-2750rpm.


What this means is while leisurely, around-town off-the-line performance is quite brisk, there’s worrying lag at take-off if you’re in a hurry. And this is with only three souls on board.

We mentally counted a whole second before the CRDi woke up and jumped to attention. It’s as if the car can sense your anxiety if needing to join fast-moving traffic and panics itself. Even in Sport mode.

Once on song, though, the Hyundai would hurtle forth with smoothness and conviction – if not quietness.


There are paddle shifters if the driver wants to manipulate all eight forward gears, but ultimately the on-board brain steps in and seamlessly shuffles in the next appropriate ratio. It’s all so easy.


Our trip computer displayed 9.6L/100km, and that included some high-speed cruising and performance testing.


Ride and handling


As with the previous Santa Fe, this one uses the usual formula of MacPherson struts up front and a rear multi-link set-up, so it’s similar to before, though a good deal of Australian tuning has been carried out over thousands of kilometres and using many different combinations of springs, dampers and anti-roll bars, for improvements to ride comfort, body control and handling stability.


The chassis has more high-strength steel and the body is 14 per cent stiffer.


The upshot is a huge improvement in ride comfort and road-noise suppression, making the Hyundai both quieter and more comfortable to travel in. Particularly for people in the back two rows.

Wearing Kuhmo Crugen 235/60R18 tyres, the chassis has a firm but now quite forgiving character that no longer transmits bumps through to the seats, as before.


Better still, the steering, handling and road holding properties also seem to have benefitted, with the Santa Fe displaying reactive, responsive steering that’s neither too heavy or too light, even in Sport – a common Hyundai ailment these days.

The helm isn’t the last word in feedback and feel, but the vehicle displays a pleasing level of control and composure across a wide variety of conditions. A brief blast across gravel and unmade roads underlined the latter point.


We never went beyond the gravel, despite this being an AWD, but ground clearance is 185mm.


Safety and servicing


The Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) has yet to give the Santa Fe a crash-test safety rating.


All Hyundai models are covered by a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, 12 months’ roadside assistance and a ‘lifetime service plan’.


Service schedules are every 15,000km or 12 months, with prices ranging between $399 and $499 for the CRDi.




If you’re after a spacious, intelligent, dynamic and enjoyable seven-seater SUV diesel, then the Santa Fe Elite CRDi should certainly be near the top of your shopping list.


The styling is a little fussy compared to before, but otherwise the newcomer is a sizeable step forward in every way.

Whether it is class-best, only a back-to-back comparison can ascertain, but certainly the outcome against a Kia Sorento or Mazda CX-8 would be close. It’s that good.


In Elite CRDi guise at least, the Santa Fe has come of age.




Mazda CX-9 Touring AWD from $54,290 before on-roads

While pitching a petrol against a diesel may seem unfair, the diesel-powered CX-9-based CX-8 has no spec equivalent to the Santa Fe Elite, so petrol it is. And that’s no bad thing, since the 2.5-litre turbo is both punchy and economical, while the ride and interior are also class-leading. This is the CX-9 at its best.


Kia Sorento SLi Diesel AWD from $50,490 before on-roads

Still attractive, spacious and involving to drive, the Sorento was and is a landmark vehicle for its maker, elevating it to the pointy end of its class by doing most things right and with few flaws. A deserved success and one with a leading warranty to boot.


Skoda Kodiaq 140TDI Sportline 4x4 from $52,990 before on-roads

A little smaller than the Hyundai and Kia, the Kodiaq nevertheless represents a bold step forward for VW’s Czech brand with handsome styling, a versatile interior and chic Euro presentation that gives it an upmarket ambience in this guise. Strong, efficient performance too.

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